Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Top 5 Christmas Joys of All Time

After having read my last post, my husband called from work and wondered, had I screwed up dinner? "No...well, at least, not yet," I replied. After all, it's not rare for something to go terribly wrong while I'm in the kitchen. There is a reason why my two-year-old daughter always screamed, "Pizza Guy!", when the doorbell rang. Two Christmases ago, I beat the sugar cookie recipe in with the butter. You can see why he might have concern...

No, no, no, I'm not considering offing myself during Advent. I just decided that this year, instead of dreading everything I have to do for Christmas, I would fully explore Advent. Not only does it signal the start of the new church year for my faith community, it is also an occasion to spend some time in the dark while waiting for the light of the world to be born/reborn.

I recently blogged about my top Christmas gripes. I also wrote about not noticing the sacred or the joyful in life and how that ends up desecrating everything. So, in the grand spirit of recognizing all that is good, here are my top 5 (really, five) Christmas joys of all time...

1. The lights. I love Christmas lights--the subtle white ones nestled in fresh greenery and the kitschy Las Vegas ones that cause light pollution. Although I would never outline every angle of my house (I don't like ladders and I'm lazy), when I see an over-the-top production down the street, I think, OHHHHH YEAAAAAAAAH!! I also think, SUCKAS! HAVE FUN GETTING THOSE DOWN!

2. The cards. Like Charlie Brown, I wait by the mailbox. I love them all--photo montages, cheesy brag sheets, religious ones, funny ones...even the ones that rain excessive glitter on my floor. (Recently, I read that glitter is the "genital herpes of the crafting world". It still makes me happy.) I simply like hearing from my friends and family this time of year. Of course, this is the first year I've gotten my own out in recent memory so I don't receive as many as I used to. That's Stop Number One on my Anti-Grinch List for the years to come.

3. The baking. I am not a joyful cook but I do like baking for the holidays. Baking reminds me of my mother who was no Martha Stewart either, unless it was for Christmas or our birthdays. Although I hated being her sous-chef and chopping nuts, I loved it when she made gingerbread men. I would decorate them however I wanted with raisins and frosting and candy. She used to compliment my artwork and then hang them on the tree...

4. The tree. Oooh, the sight of the brightly lit Christmas tree with silver tinsel and a bizarre menagerie of hand made ornaments and a mismatched light-up star...aaah, the comforting smell of homemade gingerbread cookies festooning said tree...eeeek, the sound of mom's blood-curdling shrieks as she came down one morning to find the cookies and candy canes covered inky black from a swarm of ants. That was the first and last year we had a live tree with a root ball. (To add insult to injury, we planted it in the back yard. It died.)

5. The music. Nothing, of course, by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion or their ilk that can get stuck in your mind and cause cerebral hemorrhaging. I'm talking The Messiah, by Handel or The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, or the entire soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and/or especially "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin" by the blues great, Albert King. My kids are strictly forbidden to listen to or sing Christmas music between New Year's Day and Thanksgiving. Some might consider this harsh. But, I think this music is joyful because, like all joyful experiences, it is transient, fleetingly appreciated...not in our world for long.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Joy of Cooking?

There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.-- Wendell Berry

I have a friend whom I love and I have only met her once. We met online when she commented on Big Harmony. We exchanged some pleasantries and thus started a modern epistolary friendship (facebook, email, comments on blogs) much akin to the one between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, excepting for the fact that I am not very fond of cooking.

The aforementioned quote resides on the margins of her blog. When I visit her site, I always smile when I read its message but have failed to actually approach it, pick it up, turn it around. I think this is why my efforts normally fall flat in the kitchen. I don't pay attention. I don't notice when I'm missing an ingredient until it's too late and then I just have to make do with a substitute. Or, I add too much of an ingredient, and when I realize my has already incorporated into the greater whole. The dish is never quite spoiled but it's never quite memorable, either.

I remember a few meals in my life that were a "religious" experience, perhaps even sacred. The chef, the restaurant owner, the servers all combined their love of and dedication to food to create an atmosphere of, well, profound love for others. I loved the careful combination of flavors. I loved being surprised by the chef's creativity. I felt welcomed and appreciated by those serving us. Humbled but lifted high at the same time, for me to share this friendly contradiction while in the company of people who really know me (and still love me) made for a transcendent experience.

During this time of Advent, this time of "coming towards", I am embarrassed to say that, in my life, I create few of these experiences for others. I seem to be coming towards nothing in particular except my own pleasure and comfort.

The cold, hard, dark truth is that this inclination permeates, violates, desacrilizes absolutely everything in my world. Here I am, awash in a world expressly created to be full of meaning, relationship and joy, and I can't be bothered to recognize it unless it brings me comfort and joy.

Damn. No wonder I no longer look forward to Christmas. With all the missing elements and substandard substitutions, I've let my inattention become the main ingredient in my life. With few exceptions, I have made almost every aspect of it incredibly unspecial, unnoticeable, blah.

Perhaps I need to stop wondering when my own personal Joy of Cooking will arrive or where the joy of Christmas went. Noticing, nurturing, serving--combined in unexpected ways, this is the food for the soul I've been craving in a world where everthing tastes so bland, so joyless.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Top 5 Christmas Gripes of All Time

I'm seriously considering giving up on Christmas. Not Advent. I like the waiting, the preparing, the expectation that the light is coming back, that the darkest night of the year is over. But, I'm worn out from all the Christmas crap. In the spirit of the movie, High Fidelity, here are my top 5 Christmas gripes of all time:

1. The ubiquitous commercialism that implores me to buy, buy, buy my and my family's way to sublime happiness and cheer. If I get one more Kohl's flyer shouting that ALL KITSCH IS 50 OFF...TODAY ONLY...AGAIN, I'm going to puke red and green at the front of their store on Christmas Eve.
2. The mind-wracking searching for the perfect gift-that's-in-my-small-budget-for people-who-can-afford-to-buy-what-they-want-anyway. Seriously, are there any surprises after 16? Do you know anybody in your circle of family or friends who actually NEEDS something? Nine times out of ten, I fret about a gift and the person already owns the stupid thing.
3. Stepping around people's religious or atheistic/agnostic mine fields. I am way weary of sorting (in my already DEFCON 5 brain) to whom I should be wishing Merry Christmas or just Happy Holidays. Will this person think I'm a religious nutball if I mention the peace of Christ? Will that person judge me for taking the Christ out of Christmas if I don't? This makes me want to take the Lord's name in vain. Even for someone as irreverent as me, I think that's a bad thing. Especially this time of year.

Okay, I lied. I only have three major gripes.

After my dream (see previous post), I am pondering whether I should just cut out the kvetching and do something about my vitriol. This makes me extremely uncomfortable, even afraid, because I have a choice. It might not go over well with some folk.

Do I stop buying stuff for my extended family, excepting the children for whom I think the magic of Christmas Day was actually created? They might think I'm cheap. Do I write my adult family and friends a letter telling them not to send me gifts and instead take the time to explain to them how much they mean to me? They may think I'm a hippie do-gooder. Do I take all the money I would be spending in the stores and donate it to people who desperately need things, like coats and blankets and food? I know I don't give enough to the poor, the oppressed, the hopeless. This makes me feel poor, oppressed and hopeless, too.

Do I enthusiastically wish people the peace of Christ on Christmas and just hope that they understand that I am not some mindless zealot trying to oppress them with my beliefs...I'm just wishing them some love and joy because they are my neighbors? They might think I'm one of those Christians. You know, the kind that is oblivious or dismissive of all other religious holidays.

The cold hard truth is, at 40 something, I'm still afraid of what other people think of me. I've mostly gotten over caring about how others might judge my parenting style or my appearance. But I still care about what the "cool" people, the intellectuals, think about me. I want to love God with all my heart, mind and soul because I believe in a divine force. Yet...

I don't want to look like a fool in front of others. I don't want to be embarrassed about my beliefs in front of God. I just want to be me. So, this Advent, I could care less about Christmas day. I am commmitted to the waiting...waiting for the light to shine into my life and show me what to bring forth and what to let fade away into the darkness.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Dream

I had the strangest dream in the wee hours of the Saturday night before Advent commenced. It was peculiar in several ways. First, nothing wakes me up at night, especially dreams. Second, I hardly ever dream except for wacky little vignettes that usually start right before I wake up. Third, if I do dream, I rarely remember the plots at first light.

But on that curious Saturday night, I awakened at 3 a.m. with a start. Neither scared nor upset, I sat up in the dark...surprised, yet serene. The most peaceful feeling had overcome me in my sleep, something I have never experienced in my dreaming life.

I think I was talking to God in my dream. Yet, it wasn't a conversation. I was listening, not communicating with anyone. The narrative, the voice, seemed like it was originating in me, but then again, not. The dream offered no setting, no tangible clues as to where I might be. It was as if I were in a deep, friendly...void. I was not afraid.

Because I have no other words to describe a conversation that was neither with myself nor with others, I would have to describe the experience as an epiphany unfolding gently, as a lotus flower slowly opens when the light coaxes it to accomplish what is in its very nature to do.

This is what my dream revealed to me: We humans are always looking for miracles. They elude us because we don't know what they really are.

I want to witness seas parting, people surviving in the bellies of whales, oil lasting an astounding eight nights instead of just the one...a human walking on water or turning it into the finest wine. I want "signs". My Epiphany, however, seemed unconcerned about such things or whether they actually, factually happened or will happen again.

It wanted me to understand that the greatest miracle in this worldly life is not in overcoming our physical is in not fearing it.

The revelation was quite clear in its intent--If I want to witness the sacred on this earth, I can not let fear transform me. Instead of waiting for God to give me a sign, I have to create the miracle myself. When faced with "my people" being hurt or destroyed, I have to boldly plant my staff in the ground and transform my fear into something more powerful than the natural constraints of this world. I have to let go of everything that scares me and simply surrender to trust. The miracle, after all, is not in the survival but in the living through the fear, with dignity.

I have been turning this revelation over and over in my mind for a few weeks, now. Although I tend to be a trusting person, an independent and modern woman in charge of her own destiny, I am coming to the realization that fear has been flourishing in the dark corners of my mind for too long. It has kept me from being who I have wanted to be and who I think I am, presently. It has been barring me from being the person I think I can become.

Was this dream just a little nighttime pondering of the subconscious or was it a message from God? Or was it both? I suppose it doesn't really matter if I ever know the truth. All I know is that, right now, during this Advent season, I feel compelled to look in all those dark places where I've let fear grow unnoticed and unchecked.

I'm truly afraid of what I might find. I'm even more scared of what I might have to do once I find it.